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Jury Duty: To Serve or Not To Serve

By: Taneashia R. Morrell,

Staff Writer


“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”  -Thomas Jefferson

You hold in your hand an invitation.  It begins with “Dear Citizen,” and follows with “you have been summoned . . . .”   It is your official invitation to perform your constitutional responsibility of citizenship and participate in the American procedure of self-government: jury duty.  While it is only polite to accept the invitation, refusing is tantamount to a crime; unless you are able to provide an acceptable excuse, such as: active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces; member of professional fire or police department; financial, school, or childcare hardship; or have a medical condition. Even if you fall into one of the categories listed above, you must still prove to the court that you are justified in your refusal.

The American judicial system holds this truth to be self-evident- that there is an undeniable importance to jury duty.  Jurors decide on a myriad of matters:  whether an individual is culpable of a tortious act; a corporation goes bankrupt; a business is liable for fraudulent activity; or whether an individual lives or dies.  In essence, jurors’ decisions have long-lasting effects on individuals and corporations appearing before the court. 

Jury service is a duty that allows American citizens to have a direct hand in the administration of justice. Jurors bear a significant legal responsibility in applying the facts in dispute and then deciding the outcome of a case.  It is quite understandable that a juror’s duty is considered to be one of grave responsibility and importance.  

Notwithstanding the importance of jury duty, American citizens are not always flattered to receive a summons to report for duty.  This is evident by those that grumble and invent creative ways to skirt their constitutional duty.  Jury-duty-dodgers know how to evade questions skillfully, are quick to state they are biased, or blurt out statements that they know are sure to get them disqualified from having to serve on a jury (I recently saw a headline that stated “How to Get Out of Jury Duty: 12 steps!”).   While only a few successfully accomplish their task to be released from jury duty, courts continue to struggle to find enough jurors for trials.  As a result, the courts have begun to crack down on individuals who ignore their jury summons. 

When individuals fail to appear for jury duty, a warrant may be issued for their arrest. They may be brought before a judge at a show cause hearing to explain why they ignored their jury summons.  Often, a judge has discretion on whether to impose a jail sentence for contempt, monetary fine, or both. A consequence for ignoring a jury summons varies from state-to-state:

Alabama:  Fined by the court not more than $300 and may be imprisoned in the county jail for not more than 10 days.

Arizona:  Given a second chance and immediately re-summoned though postal mail. However, if failure to appear in response to the second summons, there will be a fine up to $1000 or a sentence to jail time that could last a few months.

California: Sends a reminder to appear, then another summons with a new date, then a court notice of potential fines, which ranges from $250 for the first non-appearance to $1500 for subsequent failures to appear.

Florida: Pay a fine not to exceed $100, which shall be imposed by the court to which the juror was summoned and may be considered in contempt of court.

Georgia: Failure to abide by these requirements may be punished as contempt of court, which may result in being subject to a fine or being placed in jail or both!

Massachusetts: Fines nearly 48,000 people $2000 each for missing jury duty, under new laws that criminalize repeat offenders.

Michigan: Ordered to appear and show cause for failure to comply with the summons. May be fined not more than $ 1000, imprisoned not more than three days, ordered to perform community service, or any combination thereof.

Nevada: Ordered by the district court to appear and show cause for failure to comply with the summons. May pay a fine of not more than $1000 or imprisoned not more than three days, or both.

New York: Jury dodgers may be fined $250. May also result in civil or criminal penalties.

Ohio: Warrant for arrest and punishment with contempt of court and other sanctions, including monetary fines.

Pennsylvania: May be fined up to $500, imprisoned for up to 10 days, or both. As of April of 2014, the Philadelphia court system reinstituted the ‘Scofflaw Court’ for jurors who failed to appear when summoned. www.pmconline.org/node/1097

Tennessee: $500 fine or imprisonment up to 10 days in jail.

Texas: Judges are authorized to punish those who ignore a jury summons with a fine ranging from $100 to $1000.

The valuable lesson here (no pun intended) is that you may want to think twice about ignoring a personal invitation for jury duty; it is far better to show up because serving on any jury is better than paying a hefty fine or serving jail time.